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The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Paul DiracEditor’s Note: We are republishing this article by Paul Dirac from the May 1963 issue of Scientific American, as it might be of interest to listeners to the June 24, 2010, and June 25, 2010 Science Talk podcasts, featuring award-winning writer and physicist Graham Farmelo discussing The Strangest Man, his biography of the Nobel Prize-winning British theoretical physicist.

In this article I should like to discuss the development of general physical theory: how it developed in the past and how one may expect it to develop in the future. One can look on this continual development as a process of evolution, a process that has been going on for several centuries.

The first main step in this process of evolution was brought about by Newton. Before Newton, people looked on the world as being essentially two-dimensional-the two dimensions in which one can walk about-and the up-and-down dimension seemed to be something essentially different. Newton showed how one can look on the up-and-down direction as being symmetrical with the other two directions, by bringing in gravitational forces and showing how they take their place in physical theory. One can say that Newton enabled us to pass from a picture with two-dimensional symmetry to a picture with three-dimensional symmetry.

Einstein made another step in the same direction, showing how one can pass from a picture with three-dimensional symmetry to a picture with four­dimensional symmetry. Einstein brought in time and showed how it plays a role that is in many ways symmetrical with the three space dimensions. However, this symmetry is not quite perfect. With Einstein’s picture one is led to think of the world from a four-dimensional point of view, but the four dimensions are not completely symmetrical. There are some directions in the four-dimensional picture that are different from others: directions that are called null directions, along which a ray of light can move; hence the four-dimensional picture is not completely symmetrical. Still, there is a great deal of symmetry among the four dimensions. The only lack of symmetry, so far as concerns the equations of physics, is in the appearance of a minus sign in the equations with respect to the time dimension as compared with the three space dimensions [see top equation in diagram].

four-dimensional symmetry equation and Schrodinger's equationsWe have, then, the development from the three-dimensional picture of the world to the four-dimensional picture. The reader will probably not be happy with this situation, because the world still appears three-dimensional to his consciousness. How can one bring this appearance into the four-dimensional picture that Einstein requires the physicist to have?

What appears to our consciousness is really a three-dimensional section of the four-dimensional picture. We must take a three-dimensional section to give us what appears to our consciousness at one time; at a later time we shall have a different three-dimensional section. The task of the physicist consists largely of relating events in one of these sections to events in another section referring to a later time. Thus the picture with four­dimensional symmetry does not give us the whole situation. This becomes particularly important when one takes into account the developments that have been brought about by quantum theory. Quantum theory has taught us that we have to take the process of observation into account, and observations usually require us to bring in the three-dimensional sections of the four-dimensional picture of the universe.

The special theory of relativity, which Einstein introduced, requires us to put all the laws of physics into a form that displays four-dimensional symmetry. But when we use these laws to get results about observations, we have to bring in something additional to the four-dimensional symmetry, namely the three-dimensional sections that describe our consciousness of the universe at a certain time.

Einstein made another most important contribution to the development of our physical picture: he put forward the general theory of relativity, which requires us to suppose that the space of physics is curved. Before this physicists had always worked with a flat space, the three-dimensional flat space of Newton which was then extended to the four­dimensional flat space of special relativity. General relativity made a really important contribution to the evolution of our physical picture by requiring us to go over to curved space. The general requirements of this theory mean that all the laws of physics can be formulated in curved four-dimensional space, and that they show symmetry among the four dimensions. But again, when we want to bring in observations, as we must if we look at things from the point of view of quantum theory, we have to refer to a section of this four-dimensional space. With the four-dimensional space curved, any section that we make in it also has to be curved, because in general we cannot give a meaning to a flat section in a curved space. This leads us to a picture in which we have to take curved three­dimensional sections in the curved four­dimensional space and discuss observations in these sections.

During the past few years people have been trying to apply quantum ideas to gravitation as well as to the other phenomena of physics, and this has led to a rather unexpected development, namely that when one looks at gravitational theory from the point of view of the sections, one finds that there are some degrees of freedom that drop out of the theory. The gravitational field is a tensor field with 10 components. One finds that six of the components are adequate for describing everything of physical importance and the other four can be dropped out of the equations. One cannot, however, pick out the six important components from the complete set of 10 in any way that does not destroy the four-dimensional symmetry. Thus if one insists on preserving four-dimensional symmetry in the equations, one cannot adapt the theory of gravitation to a discussion of measurements in the way quantum theory requires without being forced to a more complicated description than is needed bv the physical situation. This result has led me to doubt how fundamental the four-dimensional requirement in physics is. A few decades ago it seemed quite certain that one had to express the whole of physics in four­dimensional form. But now it seems that four-dimensional symmetry is not of such overriding importance, since the description of nature sometimes gets simplified when one departs from it.

Now I should like to proceed to the developments that have been brought about by quantum theory. Quantum theory is the discussion of very small things, and it has formed the main subject of physics for the past 60 years. During this period physicists have been amassing quite a lot of experimental information and developing a theory to correspond to it, and this combination of theory and experiment has led to important developments in the physicist’s picture of the world.

The quantum first made its appearance when Planck discovered the need to suppose that the energy of electromagnetic waves can exist only in multiples of a certain unit, depending on the frequency of the waves, in order to explain the law of black-body radiation. Then Einstein discovered the same unit of energy occurring in the photoelectric effect. In this early work on quantum theory one simply had to accept the unit of energy without being able to incorporate it into a physical picture.

The first new picture that appeared was Bohr’s picture of the atom. It was a picture in which we had electrons moving about in certain well-defined orbits and occasionally making a jump from one orbit to another. We could not picture how the jump took place. We just had to accept it as a kind of discontinuity. Bohr’s picture of the atom worked only for special examples, essentially when there was only one electron that was of importance for the problem under consideration. Thus the picture was an incomplete and primitive one.

The big advance in the quantum theory came in 1925, with the discovery of quantum mechanics. This advance was brought about independently by two men, Heisenberg first and Schrodinger soon afterward, working from different points of view. Heisenberg worked keeping close to the experimental evidence about spectra that was being amassed at that time, and he found out how the experimental information could be fitted into a scheme that is now known as matrix mechanics. All the experimental data of spectroscopy fitted beautifully into the scheme of matrix mechanics, and this led to quite a different picture of the atomic world. Schrodinger worked from a more mathematical point of view, trying to find a beautiful theory for describing atomic events, and was helped by De Broglie’s ideas of waves associated with particles. He was able to extend De Broglie’s ideas and to get a very beautiful equation, known as Schrodinger’s wave equation, for describing atomic processes. Schrodinger got this equation by pure thought, looking for some beautiful generalization of De Broglie’s ideas, and not by keeping close to the experimental development of the subject in the way Heisenberg did.

I might tell you the story I heard from Schrodinger of how, when he first got the idea for this equation, he immediately applied it to the behavior of the electron in the hydrogen atom, and then he got results that did not agree with experiment. The disagreement arose because at that time it was not known that the electron has a spin. That, of course, was a great disappointment to Schrodinger, and it caused him to abandon the work for some months. Then he noticed that if he applied the theory in a more approximate way, not taking into ac­ count the refinements required by relativity, to this rough approximation his work was in agreement with observation. He published his first paper with only this rough approximation, and in that way Schrodinger’s wave equation was presented to the world. Afterward, of course, when people found out how to take into account correctly the spin of the electron, the discrepancy between the results of applying Schrodinger’s relativistic equation and the experiments was completely cleared up.

I think there is a moral to this story, namely that it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment. If Schrodinger had been more confident of his work, he could have published it some months earlier, and he could have published a more accurate equation. That equation is now known as the Klein-Gordon equation, although it was really discovered by Schrodinger, and in fact was discovered by Schrodinger before he discovered his nonrelativistic treatment of the hydrogen atom. It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress. If there is not complete agreement between the results of one’s work and experiment, one should not allow oneself to be too discouraged, because the discrepancy may well be due to minor features that are not properly taken into account and that will get cleared up with further developments of the theory.

That is how quantum mechanics was discovered. It led to a drastic change in the physicist’s picture of the world, perhaps the biggest that has yet taken place. This change comes from our having to give up the deterministic picture we had always taken for granted. We are led to a theory that does not predict with certainty what is going to happen in the future but gives us information only about the probability of occurrence of various events. This giving up of determinacy has been a very controversial subject, and some people do not like it at all. Einstein in particular never liked it.

Although Einstein was one of the great contributors to the development of quantum mechanics, he still was always rather hostile to the form that quantum mechanics evolved into during his lifetime and that it still retains.

The hostility some people have to the giving up of the deterministic picture can be centered on a much discussed paper by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen dealing with the difficulty one has in forming a consistent picture that still gives results according to the rules of quantum mechanics. The rules of quantum mechanics are quite definite. People know how to calculate results and how to compare the results of their calculations with experiment. Everyone is agreed on the formalism. It works so well that nobody can afford to disagree with it. But still the picture that we are to set up behind this formalism is a subject of controversy.

I should like to suggest that one not worry too much about this controversy. I feel very strongly that the stage physics has reached at the present day is not the final stage. It is just one stage in the evolution of our picture of nature, and we should expect this process of evolution to continue in the future, as biological evolution continues into the future. The present stage of physical theory is merely a steppingstone toward the better stages we shall have in the future. One can be quite sure that there will be better stages simply because of the difficulties that occur in the physics of today.

I should now like to dwell a bit on the difficulties in the physics of the present day. The reader who is not an expert in the subject might get the idea that because of all these difficulties physical theory is in pretty poor shape and that the quantum theory is not much good. I should like to correct this impression by saying that quantum theory is an extremely good theory. It gives wonderful agreement with observation over a wide range of phenomena. There is no doubt that it is a good theory, and the only reason physicists talk so much about the difficulties in it is that it is precisely the difficulties that are interesting. The successes of the theory are all taken for granted. One does not get anywhere simply by going over the successes again and again, whereas by talking over the difficulties people can hope to make some progress.

The difficulties in quantum theory are of two kinds. I might call them Class One difficulties and Class Two difficulties. Class One difficulties are the difficulties I have already mentioned: How can one form a consistent picture behind the rules for the present quantum theory? These Class One difficulties do not really worry the physicist. If the physicist knows how to calculate results and compare them with experiment, he is quite happy if the results agree with his experiments, and that is all he needs. It is only the philosopher, wanting to have a satisfying description of nature, who is bothered by Class One difficulties.

There are, in addition to the Class One difficulties, the Class Two difficulties, which stem from the fact that the present laws of quantum theory are not always adequate to give any results. If one pushes the laws to extreme conditions—to phenomena involving very high energies or very small distances—one sometimes gets results that are ambiguous or not really sensible at all. Then it is clear that one has reached the limits of application of the theory and that some further development is needed. The Class Two difficulties are important even for the physicist, because they put a limitation on how far he can use the rules of quantum theory to get results comparable with experiment.

I should like to say a little more about the Class One difficulties. I feel that one should not be bothered with them too much, because they are difficulties that refer to the present stage in the development of our physical picture and are almost certain to change with future development. There is one strong reason, I think, why one can be quite confident that these difficulties will change. There are some fundamental constants in nature: the charge on the electron (designated e), Planck’s constant divided by 2 π (designated h-bar) and the velocity of light (c).  From these fundamental constants one can construct a number that has no dimensions: the number h-bar*c/e^2. That number is found by experiment to have the value 137, or something very close to 137. Now, there is no known reason why it should have this value rather than some other number. Various people have put forward ideas about it, but there is no accepted theory. Still, one can be fairly sure that someday physicists will solve the problem and explain why the number has this value. There will be a physics in the future that works when h-bar*c/e^2 has the value 137 and that will not work when it has any other value.

The physics of the future, of course, cannot have the three quantities h-bar, e and c all as fundamental quantities. Only two of them can be fundamental, and the third must be derived from those two. It is almost certain that c will be one of the two fundamental ones. The velocity of light, c, is so important in the four-dimensional picture, and it plays such a fundamental role in the special theory of relativity, correlating our units of space and time, that it has to be fundamental. Then we are faced with the fact that of the two quantities h-bar and e, one will be fundamental and one will be derived. If h-bar is fundamental, e will have to be explained in some way in terms of the square root of h-bar, and it seems most unlikely that any fundamental theory can give e in terms of a square root, since square roots do not occur in basic equations. It is much more likely that e will be the fundamental quantity and that h-bar will be explained in terms of c^2. Then there will be no square root in the basic equations. I think one is on safe ground if one makes the guess that in the physical picture we shall have at some future stage e and c will be fundamental quantities and h-bar will be derived.

If h-bar is a derived quantity instead of a fundamental one, our whole set of ideas about uncertainty will be altered: h-bar is the fundamental quantity that occurs in the Heisenberg uncertainty relation connecting the amount of uncertainty in a position and in a momentum. This uncertainty relation cannot play a fundamental role in a theory in which h-bar itself is not a fundamental quantity. I think one can make a safe guess that uncertainty relations in their present form will not survive in the physics of the future.

Of course there will not be a return to the determinism of classical physical theory. Evolution does not go backward. It will have to go forward. There will have to be some new development that is quite unexpected, that we cannot make a guess about, which will take us still further from Classical ideas but which will alter completely the discussion of uncertainty relations. And when this new development occurs, people will find it all rather futile to have had so much of a discussion on the role of observation in the theory, because they will have then a much better point of view from which to look at things. So I shall say that if we can find a way to describe the uncertainty relations and the indeterminacy of present quantum mechanics that is satisfying to our philosophical ideas, we can count ourselves lucky. But if we cannot find such a way, it is nothing to be really disturbed about. We simply have to take into account that we are at a transitional stage and that perhaps it is quite impossible to get a satisfactory picture for this stage.

I have disposed of the Class One difficulties by saying that they are really not so important, that if one can make progress with them one can count oneself lucky, and that if one cannot it is nothing to be genuinely disturbed about. The Class Two difficulties are the really serious ones. They arise primarily from the fact that when we apply our quantum theory to fields in the way we have to if we are to make it agree with special relativity, interpreting it in terms of the three-dimensional sections I have mentioned, we have equations that at first look all right. But when one tries to solve them, one finds that they do not have any solutions. At this point we ought to say that we do not have a theory. But physicists are very ingenious about it, and they have found a way to make progress in spite of this obstacle. They find that when they try to solve the equations, the trouble is that certain quantities that ought to be finite are actually infinite. One gets integrals that diverge instead of converging to something definite. Physicists have found that there is a way to handle these infinities according to certain rules, which makes it possible to get definite results. This method is known as the renormalization method.

I shall merely explain the idea in words. We start out with a theory involving equations. In these equations there occur certain parameters: the charge of the electron, e, the mass of the electron, m, and things of a similar nature. One then finds that these quantities, which appear in the original equations, are not equal to the measured values of the charge and the mass of the electron. The measured values differ from these by certain correcting terms—Delta e, Delta m and so on—so that the total charge is e + e and the total mass m + Delta m. These changes in charge and mass are brought about through the interaction of our elementary particle with other things. Then one says that e + Delta e and m + Delta m, being the observed things, are the important things. The original e and m are just mathematical parameters; they are unobservable and therefore just tools one can discard when one has got far enough to bring in the things that one can compare with observation. This would be a quite correct way to proceed if Delta e and Delta m were small (or even if they were not so small but finite) corrections. According to the actual theory, however, Delta e and Delta m are infinitely great. In spite of that fact one can still use the formalism and get results in terms of e + Delta e and m + Delta m, which one can interpret by saying that the original e and m have to be minus infinity of a suitable amount to compensate for the Delta e and Delta m that are infinitely great. One can use the theory to get results that can be compared with experiment, in particular for electrodynamics. The surprising thing is that in the case of electrodynamics one gets results that are in extremely good agreement with experiment. The agreement applies to many significant figures—the kind of accuracy that previously one had only in astronomy. It is because of this good agreement that physicists do attach some value to the renormalization theory, in spite of its illogical character.

It seems to be quite impossible to put this theory on a mathematically sound basis. At one time physical theory was all built on mathematics that was inherently sound. I do not say that physicists always use sound mathematics; they often use unsound steps in their calculations. But previously when they did so it was simply because of, one might say, laziness. They wanted to get results as quickly as possible without doing unnecessary work. It was always possible for the pure mathematician to come along and make the theory sound by bringing in further steps, and perhaps by introducing quite a lot of cumbersome notation and other things that are desirable from a mathematical point of view in order to get everything expressed rigorously but do not contribute to the physical ideas. The earlier mathematics could always be made sound in that way, but in the renormalization theory we have a theory that has defied all the attempts of the mathematician to make it sound. I am inclined to suspect that the renormalization theory is something that will not survive in the future, and that the remarkable agreement between its results and experiment should be looked on as a fluke.

This is perhaps not altogether surprising, because there have been similar flukes in the past. In fact, Bohr’s electron-orbit theory was found to give very good agreement with observation as long as one confined oneself to one-electron problems. I think people will now say that this agreement was a fluke, because the basic ideas of Bohr’s orbit theory have been superseded by something radically different. I believe the successes of the renormalization theory will be on the same footing as the successes of the Bohr orbit theory applied to one-electron problems.

The renormalization theory bas removed some of these Class Two difficulties, if one can accept the illogical character of discarding infinities, but it does not remove all of them. There are a good many problems left over concerning particles other than those that come into electrodynamics: the new particles—mesons of various kinds and neutrinos. There the theory is still in a primitive stage. It is fairly certain that there will have to be drastic changes in our fundamental ideas before these problems can be solved.

One of the problems is the one I have already mentioned about accounting for the number 137. Other problems are how to introduce the fundamental length to physics in some natural way, how to explain the ratios of the masses of the elementary particles and how to explain their other properties. I believe separate ideas will be needed to solve these distinct problems and that they will be solved one at a time through successive stages in the future evolution of physics.At this point I find myself in disagreement with most physicists. They are inclined to think one master idea will be discovered that will solve all these problems together. I think it is asking too much to hope that anyone will be able to solve all these problems together. One should separate them one from another as much as possible and try to tackle them separately. And I believe the future development of physics will consist of solving them one at a time, and that after any one of them has been solved there will still be a great mystery about how to attack further ones.

I might perhaps discuss some ideas I have had about how one can possibly attack some of these problems. None of these ideas has been worked out very far, and I do not have much hope for any one of them. But I think they are worth mentioning briefly.

One of these ideas is to introduce something corresponding to the luminiferous ether, which was so popular among the physicists of the 19th century. I said earlier that physics does not evolve backward. When I talk about reintroducing the ether, I do not mean to go back to the picture of the ether that one had in the 19th century, but I do mean to introduce a new picture of the ether that will conform to our present ideas of quantum theory. The objection to the old idea of the ether was that if you suppose it to be a fluid filling up the whole of space, in any place it has a definite velocity, which destroys the four-dimensional symmetry required by Einstein’s special principle of relativity. Einstein’s special relativity killed this idea of the ether.

But with our present quantum theory we no longer have to attach a definite velocity to any given physical thing, because the velocity is subject to uncertainty relations. The smaller the mass of the thing we are interested in, the more important are the uncertainty relations. Now, the ether will certainly have very little mass, so that uncertainty relations for it will be extremely important. The velocity of the ether at some particular place should therefore not be pictured as definite, because it will be subject to uncertainty relations and so may be anything over a wide range of values. In that way one can get over the difficulties of reconciling the existence of an ether with the special theory of relativity.

There is one important change this will make in our picture of a vacuum. We would like to think of a vacuum as a region in which we have complete symmetry between the four dimensions of space-time as required by special relativity. If there is an ether subject to uncertainty relations, it will not be possible to have this symmetry accurately. We can suppose that the velocity of the ether is equally likely to be anything within a wide range of values that would give the symmetry only approximately. We cannot in any precise way proceed to the limit of allowing all values for the velocity between plus and minus the velocity of light, which we would have to do in order to make the symmetry accurate. Thus the vacuum becomes a state that is unattainable. I do not think that this is a physical objection to the theory. It would mean that the vacuum is a state we can approach very closely. There is no limit as to how closely we can approach it, but we can never attain it. I believe that would be quite satisfactory to the experimental physicist. It would, however, mean a departure from the notion of the vacuum that we have in the quantum theory, where we start off with the vacuum state having exactly the symmetry required by special relativity.

That is one idea for the development of physics in the future that would change our picture of the vacuum, but change it in a way that is not unacceptable to the experimental physicist. It has proved difficult to continue with the theory, because one would need to set up mathematically the uncertainty relations for the ether and so far some satisfactory theory along these lines has not been discovered. If it could be developed satisfactorily, it would give rise to a new kind of field in physical theory, which might help in explaining some of the elementary particles.

Another possible picture I should like to mention concerns the question of why all the electric charges that are observed in nature should be multiples of one elementary unit, e. Why does one not have a continuous distribution of charge occurring in nature? The picture I propose goes back to the idea of Faraday lines of force and involves a development of this idea. The Faraday lines of force are a way of picturing electric fields. If we have an electric field in any region of space, then according to Faraday we can draw a set of lines that have the direction of the electric field. The closeness of the lines to one another gives a measure of the strength of the field—they are close where the field is strong and less close where the field is weak. The Faraday lines of force give us a good picture of the electric field in classical theory.

When we go over to quantum theory, we bring a kind of discreteness into our basic picture. We can suppose that the continuous distribution of Faraday lines of force that we have in the classical picture is replaced by just a few discrete lines of force with no lines of force between them. Now, the lines of force in the Faraday picture end where there are charges. Therefore with these quantized Faraday lines of force it would be reasonable to suppose the charge associated with each line, which has to lie at the end if the line of force has an end, is always the same (apart from its sign), and is always just the electronic charge, – e or + e. This leads us to a picture of discrete Faraday lines of force, each associated with a charge, – e or + e. There is a direction attached to each line, so that the ends of a line that has two ends are not the same, and there is a charge + e at one end and a charge – e at the other. We may have lines of force extending to infinity, of course, and then there is no charge.

If we suppose that these discrete Faraday lines of force are something basic in physics and lie at the bottom of our picture of the electromagnetic field, we shall have an explanation of why charges always occur in multiples of e. This happens because if we have any particle with some lines of force ending on it, the number of these lines must be a whole number. In that way we get a picture that is qualitatively quite reasonable.

We suppose these lines of force can move about. Some of them, forming closed loops or simply extending from minus infinity to infinity, will correspond to electromagnetic waves. Others will have ends, and the ends of these lines will be the charges. We may have a line of force sometimes breaking. When that happens, we have two ends appearing, and there must be charges at the two ends. This process—the breaking of a line of force—would be the picture for the creation of an electron (e-) and a positron (e+). It would be quite a reasonable picture, and if one could develop it, it would provide a theory in which e appears as a basic quantity. I have not yet found any reasonable system of equations of motion for these lines of force, and so I just put forward the idea as a possible physical picture we might have in the future.

There is one very attractive feature in this picture. It will quite alter the discussion of renormalization. The renormalization we have in our present quantum electrodynamics comes from starting off with what people call a bare electron—an electron without a charge on it. At a certain stage in the theory one brings in the charge and puts it on the electron, thereby making the electron interact with the electromagnetic field. This brings a perturbation into the equations and causes a change in the mass of the electron, the Delta m, which is to be added to the previous mass of the electron. The procedure is rather roundabout because it starts off with the unphysical concept of the bare electron. Probably in the improved physical picture we shall have in the future the bare electron will not exist at all.

Now, that state of affairs is just what we have with the discrete lines of force. We can picture the lines of force as strings, and then the electron in the picture is the end of a string. The string itself is the Coulomb force around the electron. A bare electron means an electron without the Coulomb force around it. That is inconceivable with this picture, just as it is inconceivable to think of the end of a piece of string without thinking of the string itself. This, I think, is the kind of way in which we should try to develop our physical picture—to bring in ideas that make inconceivable the things we do not want to have. Again we have a picture that looks reasonable, but I have not found the proper equations for developing it.

I might mention a third picture with which I have been dealing lately. It involves departing from the picture of the electron as a point and thinking of it as a kind of sphere with a finite size. Of course, it is really quite an old idea to picture the electron as a sphere, but previously one had the difficulty of discussing a sphere that is subject to acceleration and to irregular motion. It will get distorted, and how is one to deal with the distortions? I propose that one should allow the electron to have, in general, an arbitrary shape and size. There will be some shapes and sizes in which it has less energy than in others, and it will tend to assume a spherical shape with a certain size in which the electron has the least energy.

This picture of the extended electron has been stimulated by the discovery of the mu meson, or muon, one of the new particles of physics. The muon has the surprising property of being almost identical with the electron except in one particular, namely, its mass is some 200 times greater than the mass of the electron. Apart from this disparity in mass the muon is remarkably similar to the electron, having, to an extremely high degree of accuracy, the same spin and the same magnetic moment in proportion to its mass as the electron does. This leads to the suggestion that the muon should be looked on as an excited electron. If the electron is a point, picturing how it can be excited becomes quite awkward. But if the electron is the most stable state for an object of finite size, the muon might just be the next most stable state in which the object undergoes a kind of oscillation. That is an idea I have been working on recently. There are difficulties in the development of this idea, in particular the difficulty of bringing in the correct spin.

I have mentioned three possible ways in which one might think of developing our physical picture. No doubt there will be others that other people will think of. One hopes that sooner or later someone will find an idea that really fits and leads to a big development. I am rather pessimistic about it and am inclined to think none of them will be good enough. The future evolution of basic physics—that is to say, a development that will really solve one of the fundamental problems, such as bringing in the fundamental length or calculating the ratio of the masses—may require some much more drastic change in our physical picture. This would mean that in our present attempts to think of a new physical picture we are setting our imaginations to work in terms of inadequate physical concepts. If that is really the case, how can we hope to make progress in the future?

There is one other line along which one can still proceed by theoretical means. It seems to be one of the fundamental features of nature that fundamental physical laws are described in terms of a mathematical theory of great beauty and power, needing quite a high standard of mathematics for one to understand it. You may wonder: Why is nature constructed along these lines? One can only answer that our present knowledge seems to show that nature is so constructed. We simply have to accept it. One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe. Our feeble attempts at mathematics enable us to understand a bit of the universe, and as we proceed to develop higher and higher mathematics we can hope to understand the universe better.

This view provides us with another way in which we can hope to make advances in our theories. Just by studying mathematics we can hope to make a guess at the kind of mathematics that will come into the physics of the future. A good many people are working on the mathematical basis of quantum theory, trying to understand the theory better and to make it more powerful and more beautiful. If someone can hit on the right lines along which to make this development, it may lead to a future advance in which people will first discover the equations and then, after examining them, gradually learn how to apply them. To some extent that corresponds with the line of development that occurred with Schrodinger’s discovery of his wave equation. Schrodinger discovered the equation simply by .looking for an equation with mathematical beauty. When the equation was first discovered, people saw that it fitted in certain ways, but the general principles according to which one should apply it were worked out only some two or three years later. It may well be that the next advance in physics will come about along these lines: people first discovering the equations and then needing a few years of development in order to find the physical ideas behind the equations. My own belief is that this is a more likely line of progress than trying to guess at physical pictures.

Of course, it may be that even this line of progress will fail, and then the only line left is the experimental one. Experimental physicists are continuing their work quite independently of theory, collecting a vast storehouse of information. Sooner or later there will be a new Heisenberg who will be able to pick out the important features of this information and see how to use them in a way similar to that in which Heisenberg used the experimental knowledge of spectra to build his matrix mechanics. It is in evitable that physics will develop ultimately along these lines, but we may have to wait quite a long time if people do not get bright ideas for developing the theoretical side.

Image: Paul Dirac, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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  1. 1. AmanAhuja 7:35 pm 06/25/2010

    This is apparently a subject Dirac visited several times. I encountered it previously in the form of a speech he gave at a symposium in 1971 (held in honor of Dirac’s 70th birthday) entitled "Development of the physicist’s conception of nature." Some of his ideas seem more developed in the speech — which makes sense as it was given many years after this article was written.

    [Published in The Physicist's Conception of Nature, ed. by J. Mehra. D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, Holland, 1973.]

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  2. 2. WilliamStoertz 10:32 pm 06/25/2010

    Several leads in Dirac’s article suggest the probability of "design" – the apparently arbitrary nature of the fundamental constants, the triune basis of three fundamental constants, and the mathematical elegance of physical theory. But the most compelling argument is the "proof", namely that the universe and we ourselves indeed exist. For this reason, I would conjecture "a priori" that the three basic constants cannot be reduced to two, i.e. that one of them could be derived from the other two. One reason for this is the essentially trinitarian nature of the origin of creation, and another is the requirement of "tuning", whereby the fundamental constants would need to be deliberately "tuned" at the outset in order to enable a fully functioning, anthropogenic universe as we know it to exist. We need not postulate "parallel universe"; there would be no need for them to exist, as this would be superfluous and wasteful. A useful corollary of this postulate, in addition, would be that, given the teleological nature of universal evolution, we may expect further discoveries in both macrocosmic and microscopic space (exoplanets, atoms, and subatomic particles) which will be highly beneficial for humankind, enabling us to transcend the present pressing energy crisis, to develop hyperluminal teleportation, to find abundant resources on other planets and their satellites, and new useful characteristics of elements and their compounds.

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  3. 3. natselrox 11:07 pm 06/25/2010

    Interesting.

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  4. 4. TCICurt 4:23 am 06/26/2010

    It is almost with religious fervor that even Dirac contends that c is sacred. It seems most likely that h-bar and e are fundamental and that c is derived, which is why obsvers in motion with respect to a source and each other all still measure the same value for c. Perhaps the biggest holdup in advancing theory is trying to tie the incredibly successful quantum mechanics with special relativity, rather than trying to find the errors inherent in the special theory.

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  5. 5. morp 8:12 am 06/26/2010

    For centuries science , the "Philosophia naturalis" of Newton,was the study of nature.Since a century science is the study of other peoples thoughts. There is no doubt light is an E.M. wave.But actual "physicist" think it is something against nature. Dirac found anti-matter that exists in many brains but not in nature
    Joke : What do you get when you mix a pound of water and a pound of anti-matter? Reply: a Nobel Prize.
    In Dirac ‘s time the composition an the spectrum of the atom of each chemical element were known.It is evident there is a link between structure and spectrum.Dirac would have done real science if he had shown this link between the number of electrons and the spectrum.
    Atomic spectra have many uses in science and industry but until now the link atom-spectrum has not been explained because this link is tied to the old now forbidden natural science.It is difficult to say atomic spectra do not belong to the nature but atomic spectra say Dirac invented much against nature

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 4:50 am 06/27/2010

    WilliamStoertz – Wow, what a highly teleological, seemingly logical analysis. I guess I just don’t have your faith in science, or mankind, or whatever. Good luck with that.

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  7. 7. narsep 2:53 am 06/28/2010

    It seems to be one of the fundamental features of nature that fundamental physical laws are described in terms of a mathematical theory of great beauty and power, needing quite a high standard of mathematics for one to understand it.
    I think the problem with present science is the asymmetry that the Cartesian coordination System (CS) (and all coordination systems used in present) imposes. It is impossible to express the beauty of symmetry in an asymmetric frame and almost impossible to conceive Natures picture by seeing through an eye with a lens distortion. Only a system with four symmetric nonegative axes (terahedron) would be a proper candidate for representing Nature of our cosmos.
    The minus formalism is a misconception imposed by CS that covers the mysteries and beauty from modern science. Time, intelligence, and any form of causality are hidden behind a minus blanket preventing sience from seeing Natures completely different and complementary part.
    Humans have not even attempted (purposely?) to uncover this part of Nature leaving this to the hands of religion, magic, astrology, spirituality or whatever.

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  8. 8. shashi05 1:28 pm 06/28/2010

    The above thought is smart and doesn’t require any further addition.
    It’s perfect thought from my side.
    ——–
    <a href="http://onelawcenter.com&quot; rel="dofollow">One Law Center</a>

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  9. 9. shashi05 1:30 pm 06/28/2010

    A very smart and diplomatic answer. It’s really appreciable and
    general.
    ——–
    [url=http://onelawcenter.com]PersonalOne Law Center[/url]

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  10. 10. varcher 3:08 am 06/29/2010

    > For this reason, I would conjecture "a priori" that the three basic constants cannot be reduced to two, i.e. that one of them could be derived from the other two.

    The three constants are not reduced to two. There’s still a third constant in that system: 137. The biggest difference is that this constant, unlike the three others, is dimensionless. It does not correspond to a physical, measurable quantity (or combination thereof); it exists in abstraction. But it’s no less a constant.

    Being dimensionless AND integer (within error measurements on the base constants) therefore suggests that the defining constant cannot have arbitrary values. It has been a long sore point of physics that it couldn’t tell us why physics and the universe was as it was. We had to resort to handwavium, i.e. strong/weak anthropic theories to explain why e would be this value and h-bar this value.

    But if metaphysics are constrained; if the values of the physical constants are quantized (when you see integers popping up like that, quantization is the first thing that comes to mind) themselves, then there might be a better explanation of why the universe is what we see. The seemingly arbitrary constants might simply turn out (wild ass guess) to be one of the lowest "state" allowable for cosmological constants.

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  11. 11. jkelly02 8:10 pm 06/29/2010

    varcher – There was a nice TED video where the presenter was showing the results of some computer runs that "created" universes with different values of the cosmo constants. Isn’t it more likely that the number 137 (glad it’s not 42) is a result of the universe we happen to inhabit? I am thinking that there could be other universes that have, do or will exist and have other values to this dimensionless number and that either aren’t stable or aren’t suitable to the evolution of life. If they do produce life, fine. They still would not be known to us. We can’t even tell if there is life elsewhere in our own galaxy, let alone elsewhere in the universe. Anyway, I wonder if it is less a situation where 137 is a necessary outcome (such as your lowest state guess) of any kind of universe, and more a case that we are simply in such a universe.

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  12. 12. Jan Jitso 4:46 am 07/5/2010

    "Studying mathematics" was done by Vasily Yanchilin in his book "The Quantum Theory of Gravitation" (2003, available in the Library of Congress) and his conclusion was that time and length should not be considered as of a same character, as is done in the general theory of relativity. When the unit of length becomes smaller like near mass then all distances become bigger. But when physical processes run faster, when the second becomes smaller (like near mass according the new theory) then the total duration also becomes less.
    Yanchilin argues that only the special theory of relativity is right and the explanation is that the speed of light depends on the potential of the total mass of the universe, which at a certain place and time is independent of the motion of observers. Gravity is in the new theory a pure quantummechanic phenomen. This qualitative interpretation is new, since Newton and Einstein only gave quantitative results. Yanchilin describes the electron as a sphere with Heisenberg dimensions in which there is discontinuous innumerous times appearing and disappearing (I suggest calling these iets, so that the name electron can be reserved for the whole). A consequence of the new theory is that black holes, dark energy, inflation, the cosmological constant, speeding up of the universe expansion are phantasy. To be researched are the character of mass, of potential, how vacuum can be bridged (how a particle gets sense of space). Light is considered by Yanchilin as present in overwhelming "mass" and might serve as dark matter (my question: after a change?, perhaps like kind of "ether"?)
    Sciam does so far not present about Vasily Yanchilin and stays behind in the times of Dirac. The same with Wikipedia where the work of this Russian scientist is boycotted like in the dark Middle Ages unwelcome books were burnt. However the students have a right to be educated well and so the new theory should be presented to them. Next the Einstein followers may try to prove it is wrong if they can.

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  13. 13. K. gurumurthy 1:34 pm 07/10/2010

    I am just reading a book called "Reality" by Jim Baggott. I have a certain doubt. It is said that light has the property of wave as well as particle. How can that be ? The light as a particle is said to be photon. If it is a photon which is like a tiny invisible dot, when it forms forms a wave, will it not contain a ‘series’ of ‘particles’ or ‘photons’. If that be so, how can it be ‘particle’ and ‘wave’ at the same time? Or is it that it reveals the properties ‘particle’ and ‘wave’ but is just a ‘invisible particle’. Will some body enlighten me ? I would be grateful.

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  14. 14. K. gurumurthy 1:36 pm 07/10/2010

    I am just reading a book called "Reality" by Jim Baggott. I have a certain doubt. It is said that light has the property of wave as well as particle. How can that be ? The light as a particle is said to be photon. If it is a photon which is like a tiny invisible dot, when it forms forms a wave, will it not contain a ‘series’ of ‘particles’ or ‘photons’. If that be so, how can it be ‘particle’ and ‘wave’ at the same time? Or is it that it reveals the properties ‘particle’ and ‘wave’ but is just a ‘invisible particle’. Will some body enlighten me ? I would be grateful.

    Link to this
  15. 15. verdai 6:33 pm 08/2/2010

    The problem of One is Two, thereby indicating three, if only as a border.

    Thank God for the Four Directions, who overcome the sense of three spacial dimensions.

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  16. 16. verdai 7:00 pm 08/2/2010

    Every time I find another instance of mathematics leading to infinity, I am seriously grateful.

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  17. 17. jkelly02 2:06 pm 08/26/2010

    What if the new ether was some fundamental property of our universe, and could encompass what we know and theorize about dark matter and dark energy? Perhaps a pure vacuum can’t be achieve in the universe, as Dirac suspected, and could only exist outside of it. If there were some kind of ether, what would be its behavior near a black hole, or what restrictions might it place on the behavior of the black hole?

    It’s great to see his string theory, at such an early date.

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  18. 18. MAZALAI 8:39 am 08/15/2013

    Mazalai,
    The number 137 has led to the superunified field theory rendered free of charge on the website
    superunified.org

    Link to this
  19. 19. MAZALAI 8:40 am 08/15/2013

    Mazalai,
    The number 137 has led to the superunified field theory rendered free of charge on the website
    superunified.org

    Link to this

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